Rachel Valley

Sacramento’s Farm to Fork Integrity: A Response

On September 8, Michelle Basso Reynolds and Steven Maviglio wrote an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee that questioned the integrity of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork identity.

According to the authors, a trip to a local grocery chain, which was selling Mexican-grown asparagus under signage that implied it had been grown locally, led to existential musings about whether or not Sacramento was somehow losing itself.

That we’re even wondering if Sacramento has compromised its farm-to-fork identity is evidence of the successful campaign by the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau (now Visit Sacramento), which officially branded Sacramento as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital in October of 2012. Actually, that Sacramento can even make this claim has much to do with the geographical accident of the delta and surrounding farmland, and then the quality and quantity of its culinary ambassadors: the farmers, chefs and restaurateurs. So, while Sacramento’s public farm-to-fork fame is only four years young, the good fortune and fruit of our farmers’ fields and furrows goes much farther back, before being heralded by tourists and locals alike.

The success of Visit Sacramento’s branding is a tale of successful marketing. In those four short years, the Farm-to-Fork Festival has gained national attention (with added headlines courtesy of the mayor getting a pie to the face), and the Tower Bridge Dinner has become a must-attend event for the who’s who in Sacramento. But most significantly, farm-to-fork has become more than a catchphrase; it has become synonymous with Sacramento.

When thinking about farm-to-fork, brands like Cadillac, Jiffy Lube, and McDonald’s seem glaringly out of place, which is why Reynolds and Maviglio rightly question whether these companies, as sponsors of this year’s Tower Dinner, threaten to diminish the value of “Sacramento’s coveted farm-to-fork name.”

After citing these seemingly incongruous farm-to-fork sponsors, Reynolds and Maviglio conclude with a call to action, urging that “farm-to-fork” return to its roots by promoting local agriculture._rdv9259Mike Testa, the chief operating officer of Visit Sacramento and one of the founders of the Tower Bridge Dinner, has a more pragmatic view of sponsorship, and disagrees that such corporate sponsors are diluting the farm-to-fork brand.

“Look at the other fundraising events and the folks buying table sponsors at those events. Let’s say it’s an artist group. If there’s a table sponsor that doesn’t fit with art, should they not be involved,” Testa asks.

“I wouldn’t agree at all that farm-to-fork is losing its vision, and this is where I disagree with the article. They have said that a car company shouldn’t be a sponsor. I think there’s incredible value having a national brand wanting to align with Sacramento. The fact that a car company has nothing to do with food – I’m not sure how that threatens our identity.”

Testa also points out that other renowned food events, such as the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, which is sponsored by Lexus, are similarly funded. But there is a vein of protest in Sacramento, suggests Testa, that believes “we have to keep everything non-corporate, and I disagree with that point of view.”

The difference of opinions, addressed by Testa on the one hand and Reynolds and Maviglio on the other, represents the age-old dichotomy that, in politics, becomes a tension between liberalism and conservatism, and in development, progress and preservation. Who are we now, and who are we becoming?

It is important to remember that Visit Sacramento’s primary business isn’t farming — it’s tourism.

“We are in the tourism business,” Testa agrees.

“My goal is to raise the profile of Sacramento so that more people visit here, stay in hotels, spend money in restaurants and retail shops.”

Another way to describe Visit Sacramento’s goal: “bringing outside dollars into the community.” But as the old adage goes, it takes money to make money.

“We have a lot of infrastructure in the organization that is a year-round expense,” says Testa, citing salaries and committees in addition to events. “So when we talk about what we’re making on the Bridge Dinner, and when you look at the big picture, what we spend as Visit Sacramento, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

This year alone, the Farm-to-Fork Festival cost nearly $400,000 to organize, “and the dinner pays for a very small portion of that. But I can say that 100 percent of any money we raise goes back into the farm-to-fork program,” says Testa.

Pragmatically, sponsorships by companies like McDonald’s and Cadillac, though an odd partnership, also foot the bill. Testa understands the impression it might give, however.

“I saw [Reynold’s and Maviglio’s] point of view that it would be a huge disconnect if we had a fast food giant as the presenting sponsor of Sacramento as America’s farm-to-fork capital. I disagree with the premise that there’s a problem with selling table sponsors to sponsors that want to be involved.”

Table sponsors will not have a large visual presence during the dinner, nor influence over it, and Testa also admits that Visit Sacramento turned away other sponsors “because they did not fit with the vision of Sacramento as America’s farm-to-fork capital,” though he preferred not to say who those potential sponsors were. “But I will tell you that there are table sponsors that would like a much larger role.”

_rdv9409The vision of this dinner, clarifies Testa, has always been to be a signature event, but only in its fourth year, the dinner has been open to making changes. Some chefs had objected that farmers hadn’t been as prominently featured in previous dinners, and this year Visit Sacramento has made corresponding changes.

“We can claim that we’re the farm-to-fork capital because of our farmers. They’ve always been an integral piece of what we’re trying to do. But it was very clear to us on the bridge that this had been about the chefs. And the reality is that this is celebrating food, and without the farmers, you don’t have the food. So it was a conscious effort on our part to make sure the farmers are getting as much attention as the chefs are.”

The decision to pair specific farmers with chefs actually came at the recommendation of a chef, admits Testa. He described it as one of those great ideas sitting right in front of your nose, “then you kind of whack yourself on the head and ask, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’”

Culinerdy Cruzer’s Keith Breedlove, agrees that the Tower Dinner needs to focus on farmers, though he also believes the event is on the right track.

“The event should place the farms first, not the chefs, almost like a farm chooses their champion and the champion represents that farm or farms,” says Breedlove. “Having me and my truck there to feed those that are feeding the guests is also a big move forward, bringing the many facets of farm-to-fork together.”_rdv9399Testa recognizes changes need to be made – and some have objected that it took four years to host a female lead chef. But the event is still in its infancy, and they acknowledge there is room to improve.

“In the first two years, we would meet people, and they would say, ‘we’re doing this really important thing with farming, and you never called us.’ My response was I had no idea they were doing that thing. Call us and tell us, because what you’re doing is valuable, and we want to provide a platform for it,” says Testa.

This year, Visit Sacramento has also contracted Dorothy Maras, the senior culinary event manager for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine and L.A. Food & Wine Festivals.

“We’ve taken her input on how we should handle these things and she says that back-of-house and front-of-house doesn’t get paid at those events. But,” says Testa, “we feel it’s very important that the servers and sommeliers get paid. And from a chef’s standpoint, from an exposure standpoint, we have five national media representatives that we are flying in from New York City to be sitting on the bridge to enjoy that meal. So we expect at least five national stories. We’ve also created a program that has the bio of every chef and every farmer that will be passed to every diner on that bridge.”

Ultimately, Testa wants to keep up dialogue between the community and chefs and farmers.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, and in fact, quite the opposite. We ask them to be engaged.”

As far as the complaint that sponsorships from McDonald’s might dilute the dinner’s vision, says Testa, “even that article in the Bee, as much as we disagreed with parts of it, it’s valuable to have that conversation moving forward.”

Photos | Rachel Valley